“Mom, the reason I don’t like sunshine is that it feels like butter, and I don’t like butter. It even looks like butter at sun coming down time. Look! Butter. Blech”
—-Butter, age 5.
Happy birthday, you crazy little freakball of poetry and love!
As Peanut developed his birthday present wish list this year, he got engaged in a writing project in class. They’re working on nonfiction writing, and are researching to become experts, then writing a book with catchy chapter titles. It’s incredible to watch.
Peanut chose to cultivate expertise in carnivorous plants. We worked together on how to group the information. Should Venus flytraps be their own chapter? Should all pitcher plants be their own chapter? Should the plant types come up only incidentally as he writes about the ways in which carnivorous plants lure, catch, and digest their prey?
One morning, on a hike, a lovely friend asked Peanut what he was working on in school. And as he explained it, another friend turned to me and asked if we knew about the local carnivorous plant nursery. What in the holy awesome?!…No, we didn’t.
Then that night, a brainy science-y toy catalog came in the mail. Peanut leafed through and found a carnivorous plant terrarium. What in the amazing coincidence?!….Cool!
I didn’t know you can just go to Sonoma County and buy a Venus flytrap and a sundew. I didn’t know you could have them in and around your home. Neither, it turns out, did my expert. He thought they were magical tropical rarities, not local realities.
So I offered to take him and to buy some plants for his birthday. He lit up like a dancer allowed backstage at the Nutcracker.
The guy who toured us around the nursery got his first bug-devouring plant when he was 11. And he still has it.
Peanut is 9. And now is the proud owner of a pitcher plant, sundew, and Venus flytrap. Not the WKRP kind. The real kind.
He even talked me into getting his brother a carnivorous plant. Because he’s awesome that way.
“Mommy, I love you more than werewolves, more than the full moon, more than San Francisco, more than the Golden Gate Bridge, more than super tall buildings, more than boats, more than Muni, more than Oakland, more than Berkeley, more than El Cerrito, more than air. And you know what? I bet you love me more than even that.”
Yes. I do.
Writing on the circle of life is trite and cliche, but here I am again, a year later, with another birthday/deathday post.
Last year my friend died on my youngest son’s birthday. The end of one life at 44 and celebration of 4 years for another offered a roller coaster of emotion that forced me into hyperawareness. I took 450 photos at the beach that day, and kept 85. I can recall the physical position of my body for each of those 85, and how many tears or deep breaths followed each.
This year my eldest is having a birthday on the same day we bury my grandmother. The morning included giggles and chess and special treats. The midday involved tears and reciting prayers, hugging and trying to tolerate loved ones. And traffic. Jesus Farnsworth Christ, the traffic. Then laughter and french toast dinner and gifts and a long chapter book.
My brain almost shut down with exhaustion that night, having stimulated every single part of my neuro-cognitive-emotive mind, from memory to emotion to quantum physics and stifled Church giggles. (Seriously, if you tell a group of Irish Catholics that the response to the interstitial prayers is ‘Lord, have mercy,’ you can’t help but laugh when, by the fourth round, they’re all saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Such is religious Pavlovian response, and I reserve the right to laugh out loud, even at a solemn event, when my brother shrugs and says, ‘Lord, hear our prayer and also have mercy.’)
The nature of life is death. We know this. But there are quite a few days of full-blown glorious life before we reach our eventual death, even if we die, as my friend did, painfully young. The counterbalance to joy is sorrow. And exhaustion. My sorrow on this birthday-deathday was keenest at the point in my reading where I said, “look at all she has left.” Because I was lucky enough to have a grandma whom I adored, meet and love my children. I don’t know that life gets better than that. I really don’t. Accomplishments and glorious food and wondrous sunrises and breathtaking hikes…these pale beside the knowledge that my beloved lived long enough to love what I made. To forgive me my tresspasses as I forgave those who trespassed against me. To offer a sign of peace.
Peace be with you. And also with every single person on this planet, amen. Please. Every single person, forgetting none. Genuine peace. Thank you. Amen.
Of course it’s hard to have a memorial, regardless of circumstance; and it was particularly hard to have a memorial on the day my amazing baby turns Nine. I felt I couldn’t fully mourn because I had a cake to make, a boy to cherish, a life to live. Nobody is fond of death. We rarely talk about it, except when we need a cathartic release of all the stress and pain woven into our daily lives. You can’t cry about a tough meeting, but you can cry about your grandma’s stroke. You can’t cry about the pressures of co-parenting with a person with priorities so completely different you wonder why you ever made it past the first date, but you can cry that your friend died too young, leaving his children irreparably altered. This sorrow, though, is always tempered by the joys of life. Nobody’s death is all of another person’s life. We all have parts of ourselves untouched by even the closest loves. I feel guilty that part of my life are seemingly undisturbed by grandma’s death, just as I feel guilty that parts of my life don’t change just because my children live, thrive, grow, and blossom.
As hard as it is to say goodbye, I loved my grandmother. That’s richer than chocolate mousse. She loved me. That’s sweeter than clean, clear water on a hot day. We told each other we loved and appreciated one another. That’s better than gold. Heck, that’s better than applause. I saw her a few days before her stroke, and brought her a favorite treat that she enjoyed with marked pleasure, despite all her frustrations about not being able to read, walk, or hear as she wanted to. She high-fived my son and told me stories from her time as a young mother, a time when women had to quit their jobs once they married because employers assumed marriage was for childbearing, women were exclusive childrearers, and work was for men. It was a good visit. And it was one of hundreds.
I’d still really like one more talk with her. Or ten. Or maybe one thousand. Yes. One thousand more talk, please.
We are a miracle, my family. Your family is one, too, with all its blemishes and warts and struggles and eases. We are miraculous because of those who came first, who built, and who endured.
My grandmother did these with style and grace.
And so in honor of my dear, sweet grandma, I offer a birthday card. Because life doesn’t stop, even when there is pain, even when there is sorrow. In fact, life becomes more sweet, and I pay even closer attention.
Happy next phase, grandma. May your next eternity be peaceful, restful, exciting, and funny. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, forever.
Happy, happy birthday to my incredible, hilarious, impressive Nine Year Old. May your next 90 years be full of people like your Great Grandma: kind, understanding, resilient, and welcoming. And may you bring some piece of that to the people you meet, as well. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, too, forever.
Peanut, 2006-infinity and beyond.
Every evening as I go to bed, I want the day back to do over. I want to adore my kids more than I do. And I certainly do. But the day gets in the way and I only fawn all over them for moments, not endless hours. I want to pay attention more than I do. Sure, I notice the sights and sounds and smells and am absorbing every day of jasmine and wisteria season. But I want to notice and feel and absorb even more.
I want to laugh more than I do. I want to play more than I do. I want to revel more than I do. I want more from each moment.
While we’re asking for ponies and unicorn tears, I want 30 hours in each day.
I want my babies back. When they were tiny and helpless I devoured every moment. And I was exhausted and impatient and frustrated and raw. So I want that time back to memorize and be less exhausted and completely perfect. I want the highlights reel to be the whole thing.
I feel nostalgia so keenly lately. Deep into my knees, through my spine, up my arms. There’s a sensation just before a child is injured, or just before I’m sure they’ll be injured: an electric shock from my navel to my extremities and back again that levitates me momentarily. And experience that same feeling in coveting rituals from my childhood.
I decided last month that I need to redouble my efforts to create rituals for my kids. My family. Intentional, repeatable events that bespeak our values. More than holiday traditions, I want weekend traditions and weekday traditions. I want to cultivate our community of supporters and I want us to nurture them, too; I want art and music and volunteering and adventures that form the core of who we all are.
I mentioned the 30 hours, right? Those extra minutes are key to some of my plans.
My grandfather would sit every night at the dining table, breathing the cool desert air coming in from the kitchen door, surgically altering grapefruits in preparation for our breakfast. Sometimes in the crackle glazed ombré blue bowls, sometimes rippled white with burgundy flowers, sometimes, I believe, wooden bowls that seemed more like sanded coconut shells than bowls. I only saw him prepare the honeyed, halved grapefruit once, when I was considerably older, but I know for a fact that every night he held a paring knife and carefully excised the membranes from each section of grapefruit.
Each triangle detached carefully along the rind, down one wall, and then the other wall. Dozens of cuts, all around each fruit bite. Then on to the next bowl. Rarely piercing the skin, rarely allowing any pith to adhere to the fruit. Very rarely. We never struggled to get our citrus out of the rind with the bamboo-handled grapefruit spoons.
He split one grapefruit in two when it was just him and grandma. And extra two fruits, four halves, when we visited. At least thrice a year, sometimes more, with each parent in turn, beneficiaries of the brilliantly embracing love that was articulated to their daughter-in-law, my mother, as part of a permanent friendship cemented with, “we are not divorcing you. We rather like you and we love our grandchildren. Please, please: come see us. And always let them come see us.”
Oh, we did. Early mornings playing tennis, picking pecans from the trees. Eating honeyed, cold grapefruit from the bowls kept in the refrigerator overnight, careful not to spill any on the checked blue and white tablecloth, not because they cared about spills, flawless and jovial and kind as they always were, but because spilling mesquite-honey-sweetened grapefruit juice would be a tragic loss in our little lives.
Yes, playing tennis behind the Virgin Mary’s faded back, heat and dogs and lizards and piano and afternoon monsoons and grandma’s favorite blouses and Indian food and slideshows from their latest trip to exotic and wondrous places.
And I ache for those days so intensely it makes my knees weak and my eyes hot.
So last month I started making my family sectioned, chilled, honey drizzled grapefruit every night that I can. I judge myself harshly for not starting sooner. They need rituals. They need to know who we are.
And I got tennis racquets on sale. I try to sneak pecans into all their food so the sweet, dusty taste of the desert gets into their blood. I have little doubt that if I found a faded, chipped Virgin Mary that matched theirs I would buy it.
I make them some of my maternal grandma’s cream of potato soup. They’ve had it before, but now that she’s nearing the end I bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes and lots of cream.
A few months ago we made a version of my paternal grandma’s donuts. I varied the recipe only because I’m not deep frying in my kitchen. Hell no.
And we’re having daily sectioned grapefruit.
I realize I don’t have to do all this myself. How ludicrous. The little things their five grandparents and two great grandparents share with them will form memories, good or bad. I don’t have to force my memories into my children’s DNA. They will make their own.
I’m sure someone will force my children to watch interminable slide shows on a Kodak carousel, projected onto a retractable screen, and that they’ll roll their eyes and submit, only to revise history to adore being exposed to such culture and knowledge. Right? No? Something something YouTube, something something video game? Bah.
I just know someone will teach my children to make grapefruit meringue pie and will let them lick the beaters before feeding the dogs their nightly ice cream. Right? No? Something something premade dough, something something no human food for pets? Humbug.
Well, certainly, someone will teach my boys to play tennis and ride horses and catch horny toads and navigate the slip’n’slide and play gin rummy the proper way and Scrabble with an unabridged dictionary.
Yup. I will. Let the grandparents fill our lives with whatever they value. I’m filling our days with Bob and Anne, Rose and Jack.
Because that, and some fresh air, is what we all need.
“Mommy, I have the best story ever. Wanna hear it?
You and Daddy and me and Peanut were at the playground. And I had a yellow juice in my tummy that I could spray all over. And make people die. And then we collected the bones to use for pretend fighting.”
—-Butterbean, age four years and eleven months
For ninety-nine years my grandmother has been a tough, kind, gentle, funny, fierce, wonderful woman.
For my whole life she’s been my model of forgiveness and unconditional love.
For decades she has missed her husband keenly but has found joy in her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
For years she has been saddened by a body that does less and less of what she wants. Now unable to read, hear, follow television shows, play piano, or walk well, she has still found a reason to see the bright side. She’s the champion of silver linings. Not Pollyannaesque. But genuinely grateful for her lucky and blessed life.
I saw her Monday. She was sleepy after a rough night but she still told good stories. She still fawned all over my son. She perked up comedically for the Acme sourdough cheese roll I brought her. She loves to eat.
Wednesday she had a major stroke. She’s had small strokes before. But this time her left side is useless. Her speech is slurred and swallowing is compromised. She’s very conscious and very pissed.
She’s ninety-nine years old; long-term rehab isn’t in the cards, even if she were cooperative, which, thank heavens, she’s not. Because the only thing that makes being that old any fun is telling people you refuse to do what they tell you.
I am grateful to have her in my life. I’m grateful for the ways in which she has and does bring my family together. I’m grateful I saw her two days ago.
I don’t want this to be her end, not because I hoped she’d live forever, though I did until the last few years showed how threadbare living had become for her. I don’t want this to be her end because this is the wrong ending.
Quickly, silently, napping in the sun in the family room is the right end. Quickly, painlessly on the car ride home from a remarkable family gathering is the right end.
Immobile, unable to eat or talk, unable to do anything well that means something to her? Fighting for a glass of water to be told that good old dashing water isn’t in the cards for you anymore? Thickened water, whatever the fuck that means? That is the wrong story. I want to write her a different story.
How selfish I am. A wonderful woman lives a wonderful life full of love, and I have the audacity to complain about her frailty at age ninety-nine? In a world replete with poverty and hatred, wars, inequality, wide-scale Othering that hastens if not caused deaths all over the globe daily, I have the gall to ask for a different demise for a cheerful, privileged grandma?
Yes. I have that gall. I am that selfish.
She told my mom a year ago that she wanted to read my book. It isn’t done. I told my her it isn’t done. You won’t like it, I said; let me finish it. She can’t read now. She could a few months ago, in the afternoon sunlight with big print. But now not even that.
I need time to make a time machine and go back and finish my book and print it large and give it to her. Ten years ago. Two years ago. Two months ago.
Two days ago.
I’ll go see her in a couple of days when hospice has figured out the details and she’s settled. When I stop gagging over the idea of thickened water. When I have some good stories to tell.
Because she deserves to hear some good stories now. Once she’s done high-fiving my kids.
So here’s the thing about excellent art…it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Right?
Nope. It disturbs and comforts those who are porous yet washes unchanged over those who have no capability for human feeling.
And since this month has broken pieces off my psyche, I’m feeling particularly porous.
Unfortunately, I’ve been reading exactly the wrong books this year. By the end of January I was hopping back and forth frequently between Neverwhere and The Bone Clocks.
Want to know what you should avoid when feeling a bit…off?
Novels whose primary effect on you might, perhaps, be
OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS A LIE AND SENTIENCE IS ILLUSION AND THE DARKEST, MOST SINISTER PARTS OF US WILL BE THE THREADS THAT RISE ABOVE AND DOMINATE OUR BETTER IMPULSES, FOR THIS IS THUNDERDOME!
are not the best choice.
Excellent books, though. Look into them when life is all sunshine and buttercups. Or if you’re not easily swayed by minor apocalypses.
One of the unexpected journeys in the process of separation is reorganization. Not just reconfiguration of stuff, but of ideas and intention and meaning.
A third of the furniture goes, a quarter of the closets empty, much of the cupboards’ contents thin…there’s more space. And in those spaces there’s a lot of unearthed treasure. It’s as though the furniture has been emptied, unbolted from the wall, and moved to the center of the room. Now I get to put everything back together a different way and collect the little treasures that fell into the gaps years ago. Pennies, dust, LEGO wheels, and a long-lost photograph all reward my efforts at fixing what doesn’t feel right.
Since the house has less in it, I’ve realized what I do and don’t use, what is and isn’t important, where I do and don’t feel comfortable. Connection to what feels right waxes and wanes; excitement over exploring the spaces I find and sense of home I create is ephemeral. While the boys are awake, the house is full of life and noise and life. And it’s just right and too much all at the same time. While I work the house fades away and I’m in a known, safe place playing to my skills. When there’s no work and no children, I’m puzzled by the lack of flow around me. The books are in the wrong places and I need to reorganize. The bed drawers stick and I’m suddenly just enraged that I don’t have a dresser. I buy one and build it and feel triumphant, trying to create a new space that is all mine and fits just right. Then, in settling into the newness, I notice something else that is all wrong and needs a good reconfiguring.
The roller coaster in and out of discomfort isn’t about stuff, of course. It’s not a function of dresser or lack of dresser. The issue is not that few of the projects boxed in the garage are ever going to see the light of day, nor is the real problem that I don’t even know how to begin purging those old projects.
The sense of unease comes from not knowing which parts of my life to keep. Do I want to be more of the old me, the person from before the marriage? Am I some of those parts plus other facets I shaped with my husband and with my kids? Have I completely shed the pre-Spouse self and now need to crawl out of the marital shell as a completely new person? That’s a lot of pressure to metamorphose. Am I what I choose now to keep and what I ditch? Do I have to define myself right now, today, or can I actually give myself some time, try things out, explore and evaluate? Is unknowing exploration a quality only of youth, or am I allowed some leeway? If I buy a new dresser because the organization in my room is genuinely dreadful and not working for me, and I get gorgeous unfinished pine and paint it in glorious ways as a way to feel I own all my life changes, then I decide I hate it, can I just Craigslist my transition self and get a new one?
At least three friends are in the midst of the seeking, the sorting, the excavation; one is upset about the physical mess of splitting two merged lives into two separate lives.
The good and bad news is you can’t sort out who you are in an afternoon. Or a weekend. Or a month. You have to sit in the mess for a while. Parts of your house’s going to be a disaster as long as your heart, your head, and your life is a disaster. But in that disorganized clutter is a whole mess of opportunity.
This process isn’t like splitting a pizza dough recipe. There is no simple, William Sonoma tool for cleaving a family into two tidy sections. Not even in the annual parody.
But the messiness is an unexpected benefit of this process. Space to make changes, space to reevaluate, belongings dumped in a heap and begging to be evaluated. What’s working? What’s not? What do I need? Who I am?
In the empty and messy spaces, there is opportunity for new and opportunity for do-over. I don’t have to fill all the spaces right now. Or ever. I could leave them alone for a while. Wipe them clean and fill them with different ideas. Or shift endlessly. Consolidate and decorate and ponder. Try something and see how it goes. Put everything in boxes in the garage and donate them next year if I still don’t need them.
I’m excited to see what I find during the excavation, and how I fill or retain the spaces as I come across them. I can’t wait to sweep out the corners of my life I haven’t seen in years but that I’m slowing down to examine lately.
The past few weeks have spiraled for me, and catching my breath seemed unrealistic. But a friend has given me a new approach to test for a while, and there’s a chance I won’t be struggling, chest-deep in mud much longer.
The panic lately of the mounting lists and tasks and projects and work and solo parenting have felt a lot like I’ve always supposed quicksand would feel: doesn’t matter how often I’m told to stay calm to ensure my survival, I claw and scratch and flail and scream to get to whatever I imagine dry land would be. I do emergencies very well, unless the emergency requires ignoring all the impulses of adrenaline.
Adrenaline feeds most of my days, and has since high school. Adrenaline wakes me with a slap and barks to all my muscles that it’s time to do. Accomplish. Hustle. Adrenaline gets me to each of the days’ moments just on time, if not a few seconds before. Adrenaline tells me not to sleep so I can finish a few more tasks, including daunting tasks that are rarely of the “just a few more minutes” variety.
Lately it takes more and more to elicit that adrenaline. Deadlines don’t impress me; I just parcel out the work and accomplish in bite-sized chunks without any terror. The thought of being late does little; I just walk in slow motion through jello starting a few minutes earlier. The physical need for a run can’t pry me out of my chair. In fact, the only thing that makes me quicken my pace even slightly is sibling bickering. And after years of trying to manage that, I almost don’t care anymore. I have no sympathy for either of those children, who insist on teasing and encroaching and generally menacing each other despite everything I’ve tried thus far.
And this worries me. A lot.
So I cobble together new approaches and find new ways to motivate myself. But I feel I’ve lost my way. I’ve worn myself down to a nub over the past decade, and my to-do list continues to grow while the day seems to shrink. I found an old list from last summer, and 22 of the 49 items on my list from last year are still waiting to be done. Someone joked that I needed shorter lists. Or a way to notice the 25 things I confidently cross of the list every single day.
I don’t know how to do either of those: shorter lists or feeling accomplished. Because everything left on those lists is important. Four journal articles, representing hundreds of hours of work, just languish, needing a few hours of edits each and then the honor of submission. Thousands of photos endured being pared down to dozens, but now need to be uploaded and made into photo albums for the grandparents. FSA forms pace across my desk impatiently, waiting for receipts and explanations and 57-point-checklists before releasing the money I paid almost a year ago. Summer glares at me from almost-full camps and annoyingly-paced flights, and cackles at my inability to commit six months early.
And I’m baffled at myself, since I’ve always self-defined as driven to produce and accomplish…why can’t I focus on the big picture? Where’s the vim? The vigor? I feel as though I’m moving through coagulated blood, slogging, vaguely nauseated, from one task to another. Every non-work task feels like a burden. (I know I’m not depressed because work is still fun.)
So I make schedules of how to tackle the tasks I continually punt. But I’ve honed my efficiency pretty well over the past few decades, and I’m making the most of my time. After accomplishing what I consider the bare minimum each day, there are maybe 15 minutes left.
How the hell do I prep articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals with 15 minutes a day? How do I rework a novel in 15 minute increments? How do I learn the piano, make photo albums, plan summer camp, bake, do yoga, write up a separation agreement, and sell my wedding china on ebay with only 15 minutes a day?
The answer came from a friend after we saw The Theory of Everything this weekend.
She suggested that for everything task I sign up for, I’m choosing something lame over the important things.
Sure, on paper, but, but, but…
She suggested that making myself crazy with tasks to ensure a steady flood of adrenaline short circuits my brain.
Oh, come on….
She suggested that there’s plenty of time to do things later.
Oh, no, no, no, nononononono no. Just saying the words, “There’s plenty of time” made me physically panic. Sweat, twitchy muscles, racing heart.
“But I have to get the photo albums out!”
No. You don’t. There’s plenty of time.
“But the school needs better emergency preparedness and the teachers need reviews and my portfolio needs…”
There’s plenty of time.
“But I need to search Instructables with the kids and find projects for the next time I remember to plan a playdate.”
Please. Stop. There’s plenty of time.
I know that each yes means saying no to myriad things, so by definition the yeses should be to important tasks. I know that each moment is fleeting and that choosing how to spend them needs to feed either my family, my soul, or my work.
I know that intellectually. But my body craves long lists at which I’m failing, so I can adrenalize myself into action.
The problem is that to synthesize that adrenaline, I’m filling all the spaces with tasks that are basically crap. Not the play, the joy, the work. Probably only 40 of 49 things on the list are crap.
That’s a lot of crap, y’all.
My mantra this month is “There’s Plenty of Time.” I shoved all the papers on my desk into a box, sparing the tax documents for a special folder placed in a drawer for next month, and the two handwritten letters from New York friends to whom I want to reply.
Tonight I’m writing a blog post. If I feel like it. If not, there’s plenty of time another day.
I won’t put anything else on the list, because there’s plenty of time to do everything another day.
(I winced as I typed that, and felt twitchy. But I won’t delete it.)
Speaking of things that had to get done today, look at what the world around me did today.
Yep. Jasmine, plum blossoms, and daffodils. That’s what the Bay Area does in February. Overachievers, the lot of ‘em.
According to my boys, the Harry Potter series runs thusly:
Book One: Harry Potter Pees in His Pants
Book Two: Harry Potter Pees in the Great Hall
Book Three: Harry Potter Pukes on His Friends
Book Four: Harry Potter Poops in His Pants
Book Five: Harry Potter Potty Trains
Book Six: Harry Potter Goes to College
Book Seven: [we don’t know]
I don’t know if I did today right. I tried, I debated, and I followed my gut. Let me tell you the story, and you judge.
Mornings are relatively time-sensitive I our household. We have a chronic problem with “ten minutes until you need to get ready; five minutes until you need to get ready; time to get ready; please get ready now; I’m really serious that you have to get ready; why aren’t you getting ready; we need to leave NOW,” with my frustration and stress increasing with each of these announcements (the latter of which are about three minutes apart).
The boys have different temperaments, and different needs. But both can put on their clothes and eat breakfast. The older one can put his lunch, homework, and library books into his bag. They can both become self-shod in a matter of seconds.
The problem is that they don’t do these things when asked, and I bristle. Over the past three years we’ve tried charts and rewards and different announcements and fewer reminders and more direction and yelling.
Nothing works consistently.
And after listening to Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy but No Fun, I’ve decided to reclaim what I want in this relationship. Fun. Senior notes that most mothers’ child care is time-sensitive and therefore more stressful. We’re the family nags because we have to get people places, get assignments done, prepare and serve food, administer baths and bedtimes…and it all has to be done relative to a clock.
Fathers, Senior writes, engage in interactions. They play. They teach. They chase. So one parent is generally the bad cop and the other gets to be the good cop.
I want to be the good cop.
So this morning, when the boys came in to cuddle me (more and more I’m embracing the “work late, wake grouchy, allow sweet boy cuddles to wake me and make me happy” paradigm we’ve settled into), I told them I wanted less time pressure and more play.
“I want to say ‘it’s time to get ready’ once, and I want you to heed me. And I’m going to try for a whole week not to say ‘we’re going to be late.'” They laughed. My middle name is “I don’t any to be late.” Because I don’t. Late is poison to my soul. Late is disrespectful and tells me that I’m a royal fuck up.
Sorry if you, gentle reader, are chronically late, but that’s what late says. It says you don’t care and can’t be bothered. I strive for one tardy a year. So far we’ve been tardy twice each year. I’ll take that failure rate.
But I exact this timeliness by harassing my kids. And they teach the family to operate this way by “just a minute-ing” until I’m mad.
So I can’t let them “just a minute” me any more. The anxiety isn’t worth my energy. I don’t want to be the bad cop. I want to be a fun mom. I want to play, then get ready without stress.
Today I said “it’s time to get ready.” After only one “just a second,” they did. Peanut had finished his homework, and I had checked it. He corrected a few minor errors and, as he packed his lunch and library books, grabbed his homework and put it in his bag.
Later that morning I found one sheet of homework he’d overlooked. He had corrected it and put it next to the others, and then forgot it during the great pre-school gathering process.
And I debated bringing it to him.
I had ten extra minutes.
He had tried and done his job, but made a little mistake.
I have a lot of work lately, and time is precious.
Homework is his job, not mine.
It’s not a big deal to help a little guy making his way in a grouchy world.
Spending recess redoing one sheet of math might remind him next time to be more careful.
Spending recess redoing one sheet of math he already found dreadfully easy was more consequence than an active eight-year-old boy needs.
If I left now id make it before recess.
Showing him that I care about what happens to him is core to my biggest job.
Showing him that there are consequences for actions is also core to my role.
Showing him that I can stop my day to help him could be detrimental to his long-term conception of what people should do for him.
Stopping my day to help him teaches an important lesson about how important I think he is.
And that’s where I stopped. It was a mistake. I love him. I may not have the time any other day, but I had the time today.
I made nice small talk with the office staff, whom I like. I showed my youngest that we help family in trouble. I showed myself that even though I often think about what a staff job rather than consulting could have done for my career, my retirement account, and my housing situation, I am glad I stopped working to invest in my children.
So I invested ten minutes in my firstborn child. I gifted a tiny little drive to teach my son that we’re in this together.
I won’t drive his homework to him again. And I likely won’t have to, because an hour spent thinking he would lose recess time was already burned into his rule-following little mind.
I treated him the way I would want to be treated.
That might mean I’m selfish. Or coddling. Or pathetic. But it feels as though it means I’m a good mom.
The neighbors are installing solar panels. I’ve never really noticed their house before, and we’ve never spoken. But we’re as linked as ever suburban neighbors who’ve never met can be. And I’m not happy with our relationship right now.
They had their baby about a year after we moved in, when my boys were sometimes kind and sometimes dreadful to each other. I’d listen to them coo at their newborn out in their yard, which adjoins our backyard, and they’d hear me try and try and try and sometimes lose my temper with my sweet children.
They brought their infant to play in the yard every morning at 5am, and celebrated his every milestone as their dog ran ’round them yapping joyfully.
If my kids weren’t up and terrorizing the neighborhood early I would have been angry at their timing. As it was, their baby’s outdoor shrieks of joy often woke me only moments before my youngest started his morning shrieking at his brother.
My boys liked, on weekends, to climb our tree so they could watch the baby on his little slide. I always explained about privacy and spying and politeness. None of my pseudo-adult lectures ever got a laugh from the neighbors. They pretended we weren’t there.
The baby wasn’t in the yard after 6am on weekdays. I’m guessing from the gorgeous kitchen renovation, from the new solar panels, from the complete lack of baby sound from 6am to 6 pm that the baby went somewhere while Mom and Dad went to work.
I hadn’t thought about it, really. But I am now. Today I saw the panel installation by accident, while I was quickly changing clothes to take the kids to school. It was the first time anyone had ever had a sightline into my room, and I thought about roofs and gutters and home ownership and losing our shirts selling our home to move up here in 2008 and not wanting to buy in 2012 because our marriage was a mess.
And tonight as I thought these things, I saw the neighbors—actually saw their faces—for the first time. They’re adorable. Everything about them and their house is just right. So I watched, from my darkened room, as the couple made dinner. I watched because they must know something I don’t. If they look just right and decorate just right and cook just right, they must have all the answers. And that somehow makes it okay to spy? Don’t interrupt my story.
Gorgeous kitchen. Caribbean blue walls. Flawless pots and pans hanging above a butcher block table. Working together. Each of them occupied by a task: him stirring something hot on the stove. Her chopping and adding to his concoction. Smiling. Working in concert. Probably composting, donating to charities, decluttering, supporting causes, and refraining from all manner of judgment and coarse language. She likely doesn’t binge on to-do lists, and he probably asks her about her day. I’ll bet they have no problems with dandruff or weight fluctuations, and I’ll bet their kid will never get lice. Or a C.
Jealousy wrapped around me and started to feast on my insecurities.
Between us, aside from millions of miles of choices and regrets and difference was the lovely deck I’ve rarely used. Sometimes the boys and I stand out there with a sky map trying to pick out the planets from the stars. Occasionally Peanut lurks out there during a water balloon fight to pelt his foes down below, and I’d drag him back in, giggling maniacally.
But I don’t go on the deck to read in the warm fall evenings, nor to entertain in the summer, nor to contemplate the meaning of life in winter.
I use the pieces of my life in utilitarian ways. I forget about poetry even though I’m often absorbing the details round me.
But tonight I’m hiding in the dark, assuming that other people have better lives. That money and love and a different career would solve my problems.
Wait. What problems?
I have a healthy and happy family. My kids fight. Big deal. My marriage is over. Big deal. We aren’t refugees, we made rent this month, and we see our extended family often.
I have a career. It’s shifting now, sure, and it’s not what I planned. I’m not enjoying consulting as I once did. Big deal. Plenty of opportunities to change jobs. Plenty of for-good clients who need my skills.
I live in a gorgeous, enthralling, expensive city. It’s beautiful and captivating. And I’ll find a way to afford it on my own. Or we can move. Big deal.
Jealousy is wretched. Because it’s often based in appearance not reality. I have no idea what the neighbors’ relationship is like. I have no idea whether their work-life balance is good or if they inherited their money, whether they’re cooking together because their therapist says they have to, whether the solar panels are a gift from a crime syndicate because of their drug smuggling efforts.
I have no idea whether the kitchen and solar panels make them happy. It looks as though their marriage makes them happy. So? They have that right. They’re allowed to find things that make them happy, to create traditions and habits that work for them.
I’m not always sure what makes me happy, but I know it involves going out on that deck in the sunlight, not hiding behind the blinds festering with jealousy based on comparisons I’ll never win because I’m juxtaposing apples with lemons.
So I’m off to make some lemonade.
Both this post’s photos show the sky over the Bay last Friday. I rolled down my window and took them at stop lights several miles apoart. Because I may not be harnessing the power of the sun for my laundry, but I use sunshine for other happy-making purposes.